Evelyn C. Wallace, Appellant, vs. Ramsey County District Court, Probate Division, Respondent, Ronald Riach, Personal Representative of the Estate of James Kayser, Respondent.Annotate this Case
This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2004).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALSA05-2409
Evelyn C. Wallace,
Ramsey County District Court,
Ronald Riach, Personal Representative
of the Estate of James Kayser,
Filed August 15, 2006Affirmed Hudson, Judge
Hennepin County District Court
File No. C2-05-6546
Evelyn C. Wallace, 9613 Glenside Court, Sun Lakes, Arizona 85248 (pro se appellant)
Mike Hatch, Attorney General, John S. Garry, Assistant Attorney General, 1100 Bremer Tower, 445 Minnesota Street, St. Paul, Minnesota 55101-2128 (for respondent Ramsey County)
Ronald J. Riach, Franke & Riach, P.A., 1000 West County Road E, Suite 200, Shoreview, Minnesota 55126 (attorney pro se)
Considered and decided by Worke, Presiding Judge; Hudson, Judge; and Dietzen, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
In this pro se action against respondent Ramsey County district court and respondent Ronald Riach, the special administrator of the estate of James Kayser, appellant Evelyn Wallace is seeking injunctive relief and damages based on her claim that she owns the decedent's homestead. Because the district court correctly concluded that the doctrine of collateral estoppel barred Wallace's action, we affirm.
In April 1978, the marriage of James H. Kayser and appellant Wallace was dissolved by a judgment and decree. In October 1978 a quit-claim deed was executed in favor of James H. Kayser to the homesteadan approximately 12.5-acre property located in Maplewood, Minnesota. In July 1986, decedent recorded an amended judgment and decree that was dated October 6, 1978. The amended decree awarded the homestead to the decedent, divesting Wallace's interest in the homestead and conveying it to decedent. The quit-claim deed was recorded in 1999.
On June 3, 2003 James H. Kayser died testate. Decedent's will left all of the residue of his estate to his current spouse, Jesusa Kayser, and their two minor children. The will expressly disinherited all other parties not specifically named in the will. On June 13, Ronald Riach, decedent's longtime attorney, filed an application for informal probate of the will and appointment of personal representative of the Kayser estate. William Kayser and Nancy Johnson Lazaryan, two of the adult children of decedent and Wallace, contested the will, alleging that decedent lacked testamentary capacity.
In June 2004, acting on behalf of Wallace, William Kayser filed an affidavit of survivorship with the Ramsey County Recorders Office, claiming that Wallace was the surviving joint tenant of the homestead property. Sometime before June 16, Wallace and her agents, without the permission of the special administrator, changed the locks on the homestead, posted no-trespassing signs, and took possession of the homestead property. On June 18, Riach, as the special administrator of the estate, requested a temporary restraining order (TRO) prohibiting Wallace, her two children, or their agents from entering the property. The judge hearing the probate matter granted the request and issued the TRO. Within a day or two after the issuance of the TRO, appellants or their agents returned to decedent's property and again changed the locks. Based primarily on its determination that the homestead was owned solely by decedent at the time of his death, on June 28, the Ramsey County district court issued a temporary injunction against Wallace, her two children, or their agents.
At the probate trial in August 2004, the Ramsey County district court considered the issue of testamentary capacity and the special administrator's request for a permanent injunction. In its September 9, 2004 order, the district court concluded that decedent possessed testamentary capacity and that: (a) at the time of his death, decedent's homestead was owned in fee simple by the decedent and was a probate asset, rightfully under the control of the special administrator; and (b) Wallace had no right, title, or interest in the homestead property.
In March 2005, the Ramsey County district court authorized the special administrator to sell the homestead for $1,150,000. In July, Wallace filed a separate action against the special administrator and the Ramsey County district court and sought a temporary injunction to prohibit destruction of the homestead. Because the Ramsey County district court was named as a defendant, the case was transferred to the Hennepin County district court. By order dated July 15, 2005, Wallace's motion for an injunction was denied. The district court based its decision on the collateral-estoppel effect of the determination in the underlying probate case that Wallace had no ownership interest in decedent's property. Citing Dahlberg, the district court concluded that Wallace had little likelihood of success on the merits. See Dahlberg Bros. v. Ford Motor Co., 272 Minn. 264, 275, 137 N.W.2d 314, 321 (1965) (providing a five-factor test, one of which is to consider "[t]he likelihood that one party or the other will prevail on the merits when the fact situation is viewed in light of established precedents fixing the limits of equitable relief"). In August 2005, Riach filed a motion to dismiss and for rule 11 sanctions regarding this separate action. The Hennepin County district court granted the motion to dismiss, concluding that Wallace's claims were barred by collateral estoppel and that the Ramsey County district court was not properly included as a defendant in the action. In addition, the order granted sanctions as follows:
Plaintiff Evelyn Wallace is prohibited from filing any new court actions related to the estate of [James] Kayser and/or the property located [in] Maplewood, Minnesota unless and until she pays all of the costs imposed in this action and posts a $2,000 cost bond with the court in which she brings the action.
This appeal follows.D E C I S I O N
Appellant Wallace raises numerous issues challenging the validity of the Hennepin County district court's dismissal of her "quiet-title" action. The vast majority of issues raised by Wallace directly relate to decisions made by the probate division of the Ramsey County district court. In the probate action, the court heard testimony on the issue of ownership of the decedent's property and specifically found that Wallace did not have an interest in the homestead property. Appellant argues that the Hennepin County district court erred by determining that her right, title, and interest in real property was properly adjudicated in the Ramsey County district court's probate hearing on her request for injunctive relief. Because appellant's challenge is an improper collateral attack on the decision of another court in a separate suit, the issue is not whether her ownership interest in decedent's estate was properly adjudicated, but whether it was finally adjudicated. The probate issues were adjudicated, that decision was affirmed on appeal to this court, and review was denied. Estate of Kayser, No. A04-1910 (Minn. App. June 28, 2005), review denied (Minn. Aug. 24, 2005). In the interest of finality, this court will not reexamine the findings and conclusions of law in that prior action.
The three issues that remain are (1) whether the doctrine of collateral estoppel was available to the district court; (2) whether the Ramsey County district court was properly dismissed from the action; and (3) whether the sanctioning of appellant was appropriate.
Appellant challenges the availability of collateral estoppel as a method of dismissing her action. Collateral estoppel is a legal doctrine that bars the relitigation of issues that are both identical with issues already litigated by the parties in a prior action and essential to the resulting judgment. Heine v. Simon, 674 N.W.2d 411, 421 (Minn. App. 2004). The availability of collateral estoppel is a mixed question of law and fact subject to de novo review. Falgren v. State, Bd. of Teaching, 545 N.W.2d 901, 905 (Minn. 1996). Collateral estoppel is available when: "(1) the issue was identical to one in a prior adjudication; (2) there was a final judgment on the merits; (3) the estopped party was a party or in privity with a party to the prior adjudication; and (4) the estopped party was given a full and fair opportunity to be heard on the adjudicated issue." Heine, 674 N.W.2d at 421.
One of the essential issues in the probate action was Wallace's ownership right in the property. After hearing testimony, the probate court determined that Wallace did not have an ownership interest in the property. An essential issue in Wallace's current action is whether Wallace has an ownership interest in the property. Because Wallace's ownership interest in the property was one of the principal issues in the prior probate adjudication, the first factor is satisfied.
The order of the probate court was appealed to and affirmed by this court. Estate of Kayser, No. A04-1910 (Minn. App. June 28, 2005), review denied (Minn. Aug. 24, 2005). Because there was a final judgment on the merits, the second factor is satisfied.
Appellant argues that she was not a party to nor in privity with parties in the underlying suit that determined she had no legal interest in the homestead property. The Hennepin County district court specifically found that Wallace "was either party to the TRO and permanent injunction portion of the probate proceeding or that she was in privity with William Kayser and Nancy Lazaryan." This court will not set aside a district court's findings of fact unless the findings are clearly erroneous. Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01. In addition, due regard is given to the opportunity of the district court to judge the credibility of the witnesses. Id. The record indicates that Wallace was specifically named in both the TRO and the injunction actions. Wallace is the mother of both William Kayser and Lazaryan, and all three have brought actions against the estate of decedent, decedent's personal representative, the probate court, and the district court judge in this probate matter. William Kayser filed a notice of lis pendens with the Ramsey County recorder on behalf of his mother, claiming that she was the fee owner of decedent's homestead. In the most recent action, Nancy Lazaryan listed herself on the notice of lis pendens as "attorney in fact for Evelyn C. Wallace." Although not listed as an appellant, this court's unpublished decision affirming the permanent injunction refers to Wallace by name nine times. See Estate of Kayser, No. A04-1910 (Minn. App. June 28, 2005), review denied (Minn. Aug. 24, 2005). There is sufficient support in the record for the district court's findings that Wallace and her children were claiming the same legal rights with respect to Wallace's alleged ownership interest in decedent's property and were working in privity with each other. Accordingly, the district court's findings are not clearly erroneous, and the third factor is satisfied.
Wallace argues that she did not have a full and fair opportunity to be heard on the ownership issue. The district court in Hennepin County specifically found that Wallace "had a full and fair opportunity to be heard on the ownership issue or that those in privity with [her] (i.e., Ms. Lazaryan and Mr. Kayser) had a full and fair opportunity to be heard on the ownership issue." Again, this court will not overturn the findings of the district court unless they are clearly erroneous. Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01. The record indicates that both William Kayser and Lazaryan attended the temporary injunction hearing on June 25, 2004. The record further indicates that both were present for at least portions of the probate/permanent injunction trial and chose not to be represented. Lazaryan was allowed to read a short statement at the beginning of the trial, but neither Lazaryan nor William Kayser called any witnesses to support their claims. Further, Lazaryan and William Kayser were again present, pro se, for two days of hearings on the proposed sale of the property. There is ample support in the record for the district court's findings that Wallace had a full and fair opportunity to be heard on the ownership issue by appearing at these hearings or appearing through those in privity with her. The district court did not clearly err in its findings that the fourth factor of collateral estoppel was satisfied.
Because all four factors were satisfied, the doctrine of collateral estoppel was available to the Hennepin County district court on the issue of Wallace's ownership interest.
"Once it is determined that collateral estoppel is available, the decision to apply the doctrine is left to the trial court's discretion." In re Trusts Created by Hormel, 504 N.W.2d 505, 509 (Minn. App. 1993), review denied (Minn. Oct. 19, 1993). Because appellant has not argued that the application of the doctrine was an abuse of discretion, we do not consider this matter. See Melina v. Chaplin, 327 N.W.2d 19, 20 (Minn. 1982) (stating that issues not briefed on appeal are waived). Thus, we conclude that the district court did not err in finding that collateral estoppel was available and that the district court properly exercised its discretion by applying it to dismiss appellant's cause of action.
Appellant argues that Ramsey County district court was improperly dismissed from this action. Because appellant's cause of action was properly dismissed due to a failure to meet an essential requirementnamely, plaintiff's ownership interest in the propertyall parties were properly dismissed, and we do not reach this issue.
Appellant argues that because the issue of ownership was not "properly adjudicated" in the probate action, the district court had no basis for awarding sanctions for bringing a frivolous and unsupported lawsuit.
Generally, courts are reluctant to sanction a pro se party with costs and disbursements, but have the discretion to do so when a party's conduct warrants it. Liedtke v. Fillenworth, 372 N.W.2d 50, 52 (Minn. App. 1985), review denied (Minn. Sept. 13, 1985). On review, this court will not reverse a district court's sanctions under rule 11 or Minn. Stat. § 549.211 absent an abuse of discretion. Uselman v. Uselman, 464 N.W.2d 130, 145 (Minn. 1990); Leonard v. Nw. Airlines, 605 N.W.2d 425, 432 (Minn. App. 2000). "Although some accommodations may be made for pro se litigants, this court has repeatedly emphasized that pro se litigants are generally held to the same standards as attorneys and must comply with court rules." Fitzgerald v. Fitzgerald, 629 N.W.2d 115, 119 (Minn. App. 2001).
Rule 11 of the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure provides, in pertinent part, as follows:
By presenting to the court (whether by signing, filing, submitting, or later advocating) a pleading, written motion, or other paper, an attorney or unrepresented party is certifying that to the best of the person's knowledge, information and belief, formed after an inquiry reasonable under the circumstances,
(a) it is not being presented for any improper purpose, such as to harass or to cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation[.]
. . . .
If, after notice and a reasonable opportunity to respond, the court determines that [the rule] has been violated, the court may . . . impose an appropriate sanction upon the [persons] responsible for the violation.
Minn. R. Civ. P. 11.02.03 (2006); see also Minn. Stat. § 549.211, subds. 2, 3, 5 (2004) (giving the court authority to sanction parties but limiting the sanctions imposed to "what is sufficient to deter repetition of the conduct or comparable conduct by others similarly situated").
Here, the district court sanctioned appellant because the issue of ownership of the property had been finally decided and this action was frivolous and unwarranted. The district court found that appellant was "acting in concert with her children in the multiple lawsuits involving the estate and the [p]roperty" as a way to harass and cause a needless increase in litigation costs. The district court then fashioned sanctions that it believed would be the least restrictive to deter appellant's conduct. The sanctions imposed required payment of costs and disbursements incurred by respondent, plus requiring appellant to post a $2,000 cost bond before filing any future action in Minnesota concerning the same property and/or the estate of the decedent. The sanctions imposed appear reasonably calculated to deter similar future conduct by appellant or her children, and we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion.
 Although appellant characterizes her action as a quiet-title action, it is in actuality an action to determine adverse claims to property. See 6A Steven J. Kirsch, Minnesota Practice §§ 54.11 .22 (1990).